Middle East update: November 17-18 2018

Our technical problems have been resolved so I’m going to give this a shot, but it’ll be a rush job so apologies for that. As I said in that earlier post the Thanksgiving holiday means that this will be our last set of updates until next week, though the site isn’t going completely dark. We’ll be back to normal on the 26th barring any unforeseen complications.


The United States and its coalition partners are denying reports that their airstrikes killed at least 40 civilians in Deir Ezzor province on Saturday. Syrian state media, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and ISIS all reported that the coalition conducted several airstrikes in the Hajin area in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces offensive against ISIS. The coalition doesn’t deny that but says its strikes all hit “legitimate military targets,” which seems subjective but let’s go with that anyway. It also claims that somebody else carried out ten or so strikes in the same area. Obviously the only two “somebody elses” who could have done that would be Russia and Syria, but neither has admitted to carrying out any strikes in that area on Saturday.

The Syrian army has reportedly been actively fighting ISIS in the Tulul al-Safa region over the weekend, and made major advances there on Sunday, but Tulul al-Safa is, uh, nowhere near Deir Ezzor. So that doesn’t exactly bolster the US case. The Syrians, by the way, say they killed a senior ISIS commander named Abu Hajer al-Shishani (almost certainly a pseudonym) in Tulul al-Safa on Saturday. The Syrian army also reportedly spent the weekend attacking rebels positions in the Idlib demilitarized zone, presumably in response to rebel attacks on Friday.


The Houthis announced on Monday that they will cease missile attacks against both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as their Yemeni proxies. They’ve taken this step in response to a United Nations demand and to the Saudi-led coalition’s decision to pause operations in Hudaydah, with an eye toward reconvening peace talks as soon as possible. If both sides can maintain a ceasefire then talks should be forthcoming.


A car bombing in Tikrit on Sunday killed at least five people, with another 16 wounded. ISIS is presumably responsible though nobody has made any claims to that effect.

Wissam al-Ghrawi, a religious leader and important figure in the Basran protest movement, was murdered by gunmen in front of his house on Saturday evening. Ghrawi had suggested to protesters on Friday that engage in armed insurrection over the subhuman quality of Basra’s public services and it’s quite logical to assume that he was killed over his involvement in the protest movement, which has been extremely problematic for both the Iraqi and Iranian governments.


Benjamin Netanyahu spent the weekend pleading with his coalition partners not to abandon his government and force an early election. With the departure of former defense secretary Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party, Netanyahu now controls 61 seats in the 120 seat Knesset, so he quite literally can’t afford to lose anybody else. The leaders of both the center-right Kulanu party and the far right Jewish Home party have suggested they’d like to see a new election, but between his corruption scandals and the negative response the Israeli public has had to his decision to agree to a ceasefire in Gaza a few days ago, this is a bad time for Netanyahu to go before the voters. He would clearly like to wait until next year, when the election has to be held, and he’s hinted that he might trigger another Gaza war in the meantime so as to get his national security mojo back.


Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said on Sunday that he and Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed will meet in the next two weeks to begin a series of “bilateral discussions” around issues related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Cairo fears that the construction of the GERD, which lies on the Blue Nile River, and its reservoir will drastically reduce water flow downstream on the Nile. Abiy has said that he wants to build the dam in a way that minimizes the disruption to Egypt’s water supply.


So this weekends “holy shit I wish I hadn’t heard that” leak in the Jamal Khashoggi murder is that Turkish officials now believe it’s possible the Saudi hit squad that killed Khashoggi and dismembered his body in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 may have carried his body out of the country in pieces, in their luggage. The way this was leaked to the press suggests to me that the Turks don’t have any actual evidence to support this theory, but in an effort to explain why nothing of Khashoggi’s remains has been found they’re just kind of brainstorming possibilities. The Saudi hit team, or at least some members of it, could have flown into and out of Turkey under diplomatic protection, which means their bags would not have been searched. Still, the logistics of this particular theory don’t seem very plausible.

The CIA’s determination that it was Mohammad bin Salman himself who ordered Khashoggi’s murder–or, rather, Friday’s highly embarrassing leak of said CIA determination–is certainly the closest we’ve come to definitively dropping the Khashoggi killing in MBS’s lap. Presumably somebody at the agency wanted to undermine the Trump administration’s efforts to exonerate the Saudi crown prince in public, and they may well have succeeded. For the public, and for European governments, it’s going to be more difficult to accept MBS now that a major Western intelligence agency has unofficially pointed the finger at him. But the Trump administration looks like it wants to just ignore the CIA conclusion and continue on as planned. The State Department quickly repudiated the CIA leak on Saturday, and Trump himself called it “very premature.” Trump said on Sunday that he doesn’t want to hear the audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder–easier to pretend that way, I guess–and that he believes MBS wasn’t involved because MBS, uh, told him so.


The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan claimed on Saturday that a Kurdish militant group called the Zagros Eagles killed “several” Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers in an attack near the city of Baneh. Iranian officials haven’t confirmed the claim.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Iraqi President Barham Salih on Saturday and came away announcing that Iran could increase its trade with Iraq to over $20 billion per year, at least an $8 billion increase over current levels. Even maintaining current trade levels would require finding some way around US sanctions, perhaps through the barter system the Iraqis are trying to pitch to Washington, or just ignoring those sanctions, which the Iraqi government doesn’t appear inclined to do. So increasing trade by that much under those constraints seems like wishful thinking. Salih also met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who reportedly spoke with him about the need for regional security cooperation and Islamic unity.

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